Lefse: The Norwegian Tortilla
Despite Wisconsin’s Scandinavian roots, Northern European cuisine has mostly stayed under the radar. While some Norwegian staples such as lutefisk—whitefish prepared with lye—are generally not welcomed by today’s palates, lefse (LEFF-suh) has much broader appeal.
True lefse is a soft flatbread made from dough consisting of riced potatoes (Potato Buds not allowed!), flour, butter and milk or cream. Some recipes also call for a little sugar. The dough is then divided into patties, rolled thin and grilled, resulting in a soft, tasty flatbread. Sometimes referred to as a Norwegian tortilla, lefse is a versatile bread substitute that can be used for sweet or savory snacks, wraps or as an appetizer served with spreads.
Making real lefse the traditional way requires some kitchen gadgets such as a potato ricer; a long, corrugated lefse rolling pin; a turning stick (preferably one with beautiful rosemåling on the handle) to lift and flip the delicate dough once it is rolled thin; and a round lefse grill. For those who want to try lefse without purchasing extra equipment, making a big mess, or traveling Up Nort’ to small bakeries near the Norwegian communities, Countryside Lefse LLC out of Blair, Wis., makes small-batch lefse distributed throughout southeast Wisconsin under The Hungry Troll brand.
Countryside has been making lefse since the late 1960s, using real potatoes in the dough that is hand-rolled by a crew of 15 employees, according to Marshall Olson, who owns the company with his wife, Amy. Olson’s father, Ronald, started the business. Olson notes most lefse that’s widely available in larger supermarkets is produced in larger batches by machine, often with instant potatoes. “Most companies nowadays use machines or instant potatoes. Very few roll it by hand and use real potatoes. Usually they cheat on one of those two things and, either way it makes the lefse drier,” he said. “It’s one of those foods where you have to make it the way Norwegian settlers used to make it and not cut corners.”
Countryside’s method avoids chemicals and preservatives, so their product doesn’t have a long shelf life, and their distribution is limited. Outpost Natural Foods carries The Hungry Troll lefse and Countryside lefse can be ordered online through the company’s website. They produce lefse all year long, even though Norwegians traditionally served it only at Christmas.
Olson cites Norske Nook, a Norwegian restaurant and bakery with four locations throughout Northwestern Wisconsin, with popularizing lefse as they have a whole section on their menu dedicated to lefse wraps in varieties such as salmon, pork and breakfast wraps.
For those who might want to try making lefse at home, Lefse Time in Fountain City, Wis., sells lefse baking equipment online. They also offer classes for those who want to take a road trip to scenic Buffalo County along the Mississippi River.
Lefse has some carbs, but overall it’s a light and healthy staple. A traditional way to enjoy lefse any time is to warm a piece, spread it with a little butter and sugar and roll it jelly roll-style. The result is definitely smaker godt—the Norwegian term for tasty.